I have a card in my office that I look at from time to time. It says, “Win or learn, then you never lose.” I don’t know how I got this card or where it came from. I love that quote so much I have it sitting on my desk as a daily reminder that I when I feel like I’m failing at something to remember that I’m really just learning something.
Why is it so hard to look at things with this kind of perspective?
From the day we start school, they encourage us to get good grades. We’re encouraged to do what teachers expect from us. We learn how we’re measured, tested, quantified. We learn what is considered “good” and “bad”. As we get older, we’re often discouraged from figuring things out, to be curious, and explore, and instead come up with the “right” answers.
This kind of thinking leads us to focus on the outcome, and to only judge what is happening based on what others think is the “correct” outcome. We get so focused on this idea of finding the right answers we miss a lot of chances for growth along the way.
What if you could look at everything that happens to you as something you can learn from? What if you could train your mind to see everything as an opportunity? What if you could resist less, and flow more?
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
When we frame our experiences as a place for learning, experimenting, and exploring, we see that the doing, the actual work is important. Every time we make an attempt, we get a little better. We find what might make things a little more efficient, a little more impactful. Even day is a step towards getting where we want to go. Every challenge that we come across is just one more lesson we get to learn. Each step we have to repeat, the better we get at it.
When we focus on the process, we are doing the things that we can control. When we take each challenge as a step in learning, we can refine our process. We may even start with one process, then throw the whole thing out and create a new one all together. When we are willing to be in a constant state of learning, we always win. If we are only looking to win, we miss out on so many parts of the experience.
Let’s look at a real-life example.
When I first started singing in my high school choir, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I loved music. I sang along with songs on the radio. I sang hymns at church. But I was certainly no Frank Sinatra or Placido Domingo. I often sang off pitch. The quality of my voice was thin and a little rough. Sometimes I felt embarrassed because I would sing something quite different from what my fellow tenors were singing. I would end up singing along with the sopranos who usually had the melody.
But as time went along, I kept getting better. Each day I would learn a little more about how to sing. A note that seemed too high the week before was a little easier. As my vocal cords become stronger, I was more accurate in my pitch. As my longs strengthened, I could hold my notes a little longer. The timbre of my voice became smoother and richer.
I also took voice lessons from a great teacher, who helped me build a strong foundation of correct singing. At first, it was scary to stand in front of a single person and sing. Especially someone as good as my teacher. But I knew that if I wanted to get better, having someone help me get to know my voice and how to use it would help me develop the processes I needed to become a better singer. I learned exercises to strengthen my voice. Exercises to get better at hitting the right pitch. I learned to move my mouth, neck, and body to create the sound I wanted. How to breathe to get the most power and control. How to sing delicately while still staying on pitch.
But interestingly enough, I found that the biggest impediment to becoming a better singer was worrying about how good I was in comparison to others. When I would get down on myself about how I didn’t sound as good as some of the others who had been singing for years, I would get nervous and it was like I had almost forgotten all the things I had learned. When I worried about what others thought, I would usually sing far worse than if I didn’t care, and sang because I wanted to sing.
I think that much of my success with singing came because I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was okay with not sounding great when I started off. I remember thinking when I successfully auditioned for the choir that it would be a great way to learn how to sing. The overall outcome I wanted to was to learn to be a better singer, which was something that I had control over. If my goal had been to sing a certain number solos or to have a recording contract, then I probably would have failed because those were things I did not have any control over.
Now that we know this on a cognitive level, how can we apply this in real life? I mean it’s one thing to know it, it’s another to do it.
First, be clear that nothing is a mistake. It is a process. Think of it like an airplane. An airplane is never perfectly on course. In fact, it is off course most of the trip and is constantly making small course corrections along the way. We’re very much the same way. Think of every step in getting to your goal as something to work through. It is there to teach you. It’s a puzzle to be solved.
Second, don’t waste the experience. When you feel you have failed at something, which I think we all do, sit down and write what you learned from that failure. What are the things that you didn’t know before? What are the things you know now? What can you do differently next time?
Third, don’t let the idea of failing stop you. Accept that failing is learning. Accept that you won’t get it right the first time, or even the second or third. In fact, you may never get it right. But if you learn something from it? Well, then you’ve succeeded.
The goals that we set should be guides, stars that help us along the way. But if we only judge our success by whether we achieved the stated goal, then there’s a greater chance we’ll fail. If you set your goal to learn what you can from trying different things and improve based upon your experience, you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding.
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